Deborah Hopper, CUPE Local 1858 President, and Sam Fiorella, co-founder of the Friendship Bench initiative, check out the new Friendship Bench that's being installed on VIU's Nanaimo campus over the next week.

October 6, 2016 - 2:30pm

The Friendship Bench is meant to stimulate conversations about, and reduce the stigma of, mental health concerns

No one knew Lucas Fiorella was depressed until it was too late.

Lucas, who was studying Robotics at Carleton University in Ontario, was often the “go to” guy when people needed a laugh or hug. After his death by suicide, dozens of students revealed their stories of anxiety and depression and how Lucas reached out to them. Those stories spurred Lucas’s father, Sam Fiorella, and two friends, Danny Brown and Rob Clarke, to launch the Friendship Bench initiative shortly after his death in 2014.

The Friendship Bench is a bright-yellow bench that serves as a physical place to foster conversations and encourage peer-to-peer connections between students. It also serves as a visual reminder of the importance of mental health awareness. 

Thanks to CUPE Local 1858, the University’s Nanaimo campus has its own Friendship Bench in the Library Quad. CUPE Local 1858 started the Friendship Bench project in 2015 during Giving Tuesday, a global movement for charitable giving and volunteering that takes place the day after Cyber Monday, as a legacy piece to honour the local’s 40th anniversary. Contributions from both the Local itself and individual members were matched by the VIU Foundation.

“Mental health challenges, particularly anxiety and depression, are on the rise at post-secondary institutions, impacting faculty, staff and students in significant ways,” says Deborah Hopper, CUPE Local 1858 President. “Despite the increasing prevalence of these issues, the stigma that surrounds invisible illnesses builds a barrier between the person and the treatment and support that they need. This program spoke to our members because it shines a light on the mental health issues faced by our students and colleagues on a daily basis. By having a Friendship Bench on campus, the Local hopes to raise awareness about mental health, to provide opportunities for those struggling with mental health to reach out to others, and to normalize discussion of mental health challenges within our community.”

The benches are being installed at post-secondary institutions, as well as secondary and elementary schools across Canada. VIU is home to the first Friendship Bench on the Island, and CUPE Local 1858 is the first union to buy a bench. Sam Fiorella says his organization is installing 11 benches this fall, with the ultimate goal of establishing one on every campus across Canada.

“We worry about students in this day and age losing connections with each other,” he says. “We’ve lost the ability to connect face-to-face and say ‘Hello’ to strangers. Having the bench there reminds people and gives you a physical place to do that. The more students, parents and faculty we can reach with our message that it’s OK to ask for help, the better.”

The feedback on the benches has been positive, adds Sam, with participating institutions reporting an increase in the number of people accessing counselling and on-campus mental health services.

“Our hope is that the Friendship Bench will encourage a more open discussion and understanding about mental health and wellness, as well as providing VIU students and staff with a welcoming and friendly spot to meet and relax,” says Marge Huntley, Director of Student Affairs.

There are a number of resources available on campus to support students with mental health concerns. The University’s Health and Wellness Centre has 4.5 full-time counsellors, plus a Counsellor from International Student Services on-site 3 days per week.  Thanks to a collaboration with Island Health and the Division of Family Practice, the Centre has been able to add an additional nurse practitioner to the health clinic, bringing the total up to two, a general practitioner one morning per week, and a consulting psychiatrist, who will be on-site once a month.

“There are a lot of really valuable services on campus, and our statistics show that the services are well-used,” says Huntley. “One of the ways we are trying to better meet the needs of students is to extend the hours of a number of key student services, including the health clinic, counselling, advising, disability services, and financial aid and awards, which are now open until 6:30 pm on Tuesdays.”

Counsellors also run workshops for faculty and staff on how to help support students with mental health concerns. The Early Alert system is a tool for faculty to report concerning student behaviours and specific incidents. For the past couple years, a Mental Health and Well-being Task Force made up of VIU staff and students has been working on how to best support people on campus with mental health concerns.

To learn more about counselling services, click here. Click here to learn more about the Friendship Bench and Lucas Fiorella’s story.

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MEDIA CONTACT: 

Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250-740-6288 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: jenn.mcgarrigle@viu.ca | T: @VIUNews


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